Fictional Characters Do Not Need to Have Real Lives
Today’s news offers us the following nightmare. For the 20th anniversary of the MTV cartoon Daria, show co-creator Susie Lewis and character designer Karen Disher have “revealed” via Entertainment Weekly what its characters are doing now in the present day. Daria is allegedly the lone female writer on a late-night television show. Daria’s younger sister Quinn supposedly has three kids. Daria’s best friend Jane is said to be a professional artist who has “sold a few pieces” but somehow lives in a loft in SoHo. No. This is nonsense.
The pressure for the creators of fictional works to keep talking about their characters even after the end of the work of fiction is extremely strong in the social media age. Fans can easily gather online to dissect pop culture into the tiniest of pieces, and even more easily badger creators on social media about facts of their characters’ lives that may have never been stated, or what would be happening to their characters now if whatever fictional work involved was still ongoing. We would love for our movies, shows, and books to have endlessly evolving universes much like our own in order to provide infinite fodder for our conversations and imaginations, and so it’s easy to see why creators give into fans and make more shit up about their characters.
The worst offender, of course, is Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling. In 2007, after the publication of the final installment of the Harry Potter series, Rowling infamously revealed that head wizard Dumbledore was secretly gay, and even had a longtime crush on another wizard. This would have been an interesting storyline to explore in the actual books themselves, but Rowling never did. As such, the revelation is at best useless and at worst galling. If it mattered, why not write about it? Rowling continued doing this for years, going so far as to reveal that Moaning Myrtle, a minor Harry Potter character, had the full name of Myrtle Elizabeth Warren. In a subsequent tweet, Rowling was forced to clarify that Moaning Myrtle’s full name had nothing to do with the United States senator Elizabeth Warren. This is good because Moaning Myrtle, according to the Harry Potter Wiki, died in 1943, six years before Elizabeth Warren was born. Further, when the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was published in 1997, Elizabeth Warren was teaching law far outside of the public eye. There would be no logical way, on two fronts, for Moaning Myrtle to have any connection to Elizabeth Warren, yet Rowling’s needless disclosure implying some tangential relationship between the two temporarily created its own mini-universe within the already insanely dense Harry Potter universe for no reason whatsoever. You can see why these sorts of discussions quickly become absurd and ridiculous.
Again, this is mostly driven by the inability of many fans to just let go of fictional characters and move on with their lives. David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, was immediately and permanently hounded about what “actually happened” at the end of his show, which concluded on a wonderfully ambiguous note. He eventually broke the contained timeline of the The Sopranos and stated that Tony Soprano didn’t die, presumably so that Chase could get on with his life.
Nonetheless, creators of fictional works should resist the temptation to give their characters extended or expanded lives. In 2015, Emma Freud, the script editor for the romantic comedy Love Actually and longtime partner of the film’s director Richard Curtis, live tweeted a showing of the film in New York. During this endeavor, she began answering fan questions about what happened to some of its various characters after what the film shows on screen. The answers were entirely banal:
What is the point of this? Fans begging to know that fictional characters ended up leading nice and boring lives is antithetical to fiction itself, which is at its best when it creates messy and complicated characters whose existence beyond the screen or page is open to interpretation. The need for closure is a common and understandable human emotion. But requiring it in fiction has a flattening effect that that erases what makes fiction compelling, and more than just a collection of biographical details on the page. There are more fictional characters introduced to us every day than we know what to do with, let’s let the ones whose stories have ended rest in peace.